As of this writing, it looks like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will be the most likely nominees for the general election for President of the United States. Maybe not. Regardless of whether these two make it to the general election or not, there will be plenty of people that feel angry, left-out, and as though politics has failed them when the eventual winner is announced. That much is inevitable. The bigger, more nuanced (and thus ignored story) is that our ever-integrating, globalized world is becoming more complicated than our simple, slow-moving, non-progressive political governments can handle. Whether it is the well-established countries like the United States, Germany, or the U.K., or transitioning emerging nations like China, Brazil, and India, or marginalized laggards like Iran and North Korea--globalization is presenting problems that our political systems cannot solve rapidly. What we do have is anger, the internet, and media. In many ways, the rise of Donald Trump exemplifies a global problem.
In my 2006 book, "Passport of Faith" I wrote the following:
"Each period of hyperglobalization demands a radical amount of change and adaptation. New world orders form that seemingly connect the world together. In these periods, people and governments turn to religion, nationalism, and ideology to help them cope with change....this can be a counteraction to globalization." (p.277)
I wrote that the most likely visible symptoms would be: Islamic terrorism, poor economic choices by global powers (Europe, the United States, and China), shaky alliances, great power rivalries, an extreme divide between Rich and poor, and nationalism (p. 271-278).
Today, 10 years later, all of this is visible, whether through the continued expansion of ISIS, the stock market collapse in China, the E.U.'s anemic growth and political turmoil, renewed rivalries between the USA and Russia, the huge wealth gap between rich and poor everywhere, and the rising nationalism visible in places as diverse as Hungary, France, India, China, and the United States.
TRUMP AS THE MODEL OF POPULISM
All of this may best be exemplified by Donald Trump, a billionaire who openly flaunts gaming the political and financial system. He bought politicians and took advantage of America's huge corporate welfare state through generous bankruptcy laws. A Republican, he has mostly espoused Democratic political ideas in his life and still today, he does not model conservative moral values through his language and behavior, has little awareness of religion, and is capable of changing his position on most any subject even within a single interview. None of this matters, however, because he challenges the political system promising that the regular man will take back control of the government (and thus be able to find easy solutions for this complicated, fast-changing, globalized world). That is populism, and there are variations of Trump in Turkey, France, the Netherlands, India, and many other countries. They promise and overthrow of the current order and promise a return to happier times. They are vague on solutions, but convince the people that it can be done. That is enough for them; forget the contradictions. They look the other way because it feels good to be validated.
What Trump, ISIS, and many other individuals and movements have are not coherent ideas or actual solutions, but cheap mass communication. It is now easy to promise a perfect Islamic Caliphate (or a United States that closes its borders to its biggest trading partners but somehow stays wealthy), to a large group of people around the world and you can develop a following. If the Republicans had not started with 19 candidates, and were a party based on conservative political philosophy as opposed to populist ideology, Trump would not have made it far in the political race. His actual positions and ideas are totally incoherent and don't really consistently represent anyone but Donald Trump himself. But because the party has become a source of constant anger, the most effective, angry communicator with the most air-time was inevitably going to come in first. Compared to Trump, other potential populists looked boring.
What quickly happens is that the anger and promises of solutions become more important than the actual logic and plausibility of what the populist is saying. Consequently, Trump can suggest insane things like cutting off trade with China and Japan (two countries in severe economic turmoil that actually bring a lot of profit and even open factories in the United States), or deporting millions of people (which would not only be logistically impossible and economically damaging, but would be an national and international embarrassment). You can hold competing views that cancel each other out: "We should get out of the Middle East. I said it was a mistake." "I will bomb the hell out of ISIS." You can even behave poorly by making fun of a disabled-person, make jokes about menstruation or killing members of the free press." In Trump's case, you can even talk about "Making America Great" while suggesting things that would trample on the Constitution. None of it matters. What matters is guaranteeing a simple solution: "You will have high wages" (even though the global economy has fundamentally changed). "We will win all wars and never face terrorism ever," (even though it's impossible to actually stop random acts of terrorism). "We will never have to be dependent on immigrants ever again" (even though borders can never really be completely guarded, and immigrants create start-ups, start businesses, and do jobs locals won't do. A lack of immigrants is actually the greatest pre-cursor to the downfall of a civilization).
A Need to Adapt to Seismic Shifts
The problem is that neither China, India, the United States, the European Union countries, nor ISIS, nor any other political movement in the world will be able to truly respond to the 21st Century challenges without a massive amount of painful adaptation. China is in an economic free-fall. The government of the Chinese Communist Party will play the part of Trump and increase military tensions with its Asian neighbors, create show-trials and purge its wealthy, and call on the people to love China above all else. Modi will do it through Hindusim and prejudice. ISIS through the promise of a new golden era of the Caliphate. U.K. leaders may do it by leaving the E.U. Hungarian leaders by building a fence around the entire country. Greek leaders by embracing Marxism.
But populism reduces problems to a level so simplistic that it is useless. The reality is that China is in trouble and has to get beyond simple manufacturing and create a domestic market that consumes instead of saves. Furthermore, China will have to learn to compete with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and other nations that are going through the same transition into cheap manufacturing that led to their rise. There is no easy solution. Neither the USA nor China can prevent other countries from wanting what they have. Neither is it a zero sum game (China wins-USA loses).
Brazil and India, like China, are going to have to respond to the political demands of the emerging wealthy and middle-class that globalization has created. Because the more upward mobility there is, the more the citizens demand their governments to open up in transparency and efficiency.
The United States will have to re-invent its economy so that local communities drive innovation and commerce, while government pays off its two credit card wars, rebuilds the nation's infrastructure, and reforms the financial system. It also means, Americans are going to have to self-educate themselves, develop new skills, go to trade schools and self-invent jobs that can't be outsourced to computers, robots, or cheap labor countries. It will be painful because this is a seismic shift. Be wary of the populists who tell you that it is as easy as voting for a Democrat, a Republican, for Islam or Evangelical Christianity, or for Marxism or hyper-Capitalism. Sorry no easy answers that avoid personal responsibility and community effort.
What should the Democratic and Republican debates have been about? Alternatives to traditional university, the danger of weak infrastructure, the challenges and benefits of automated jobs and robotics, the role of taxation in a Democracy, the new forms of manufacturing that are emerging in America, the need for educational reform to encourage an entrepreneurial mindset: These are issues that deal with actual adjustments that need to be made in the 21st Century.
Instead, we get simplistic discussions that demonize immigrants, calls for more expensive wars, calls (from Hillary Clinton) for more of the same, and belligerence toward our greatest trading partners. None of this deals with the core issues, none of this will help the people who believe they are being saved and heard. Politics (especially under the baby-boomers), is now extremely dualistic, hates nuance, and views cordiality and working together with contempt. Until this generation that grew up immersed in counter-cultural cynicism is truly dis-empowered, there will be lots of room for Trumps, Clintons, and Palins.
A Bumpy Road Ahead
Because the United States is inherently entrepreneurial, shockingly self-reflective, and addicted to problem-solving, fifteen years from now, the United States will have re-invented manufacturing, dominate in global trade, and punished and shamed its populists. But for now, the US, Europe, China, India, and many other places around the world will be addicted to easy answers and choosing one incomplete side over the other incomplete side. In an age of extreme democracy where Facebook users make up one of the largest "countries" in the world and where hatred and simplistic thoughts can be globally transmitted in a second, the irony is that the long-term solution will only come from the bottom-up, when individuals demand more of themselves, thus demanding more of their government representatives. The problem is not really Trump. The problem is us.